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In his massive book Heisenberg's War: The Secret History of the German Bomb, Thomas Powers says that Heisenberg, who never became a Nazi and balked at the immorality of building a bomb for Hitler, did what he could to guide "the German atomic bomb effort into a broom closet." But Powers also knows that the evidence is not conclusive and that Heisenberg, who lived until 1976, did little to clear things up.

I'm not well informed on this story.

Question is, did Heisenberg undermine the German atomic bomb by deliberately hiding his expertise from the Nazis?

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Whatever the actual role Heisenberg played, "boycott" is not quite the right word - willing or unwillingly, effectively or ineffectively - he did participate in the atomic program. –  Felix Goldberg Apr 26 '13 at 7:17
    
In 2002, drafts of unsent letters from Bohr to Heisenberg were released: physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/2002/feb/06/… . They seem to support the view that Heisenberg worked willingly for the Nazis and only later tried to portray himself in a different light. –  Ben Crowell Apr 23 at 16:06
    
There is a book called "Critical Mass" which you may want to read. It argues that the real German effort to build a bomb was run by the Post Office and was scientifically managed by the genius Manfred von Ardenne. After the war, von Ardenne worked for the Soviets and helped them build their nuclear weapons. If you are interested in the subject of German nuclear technology expertise, you may be looking at the wrong person. –  Tyler Durden May 2 at 20:25
    
Book is: Critical Mass by Carter Plympton Hydrick 2004. This book apparently seems to be unofficially blacklisted (I wonder why?) so it can be hard to find and expensive. I have been told my copy of the original hardback is worth $300 now LOL. –  Tyler Durden May 2 at 20:33

8 Answers 8

The argument for Heisenberg being intentionally incompetent is that he made two "incorrect" choices in which path to follow.

  1. He selected heavy water as the reactor moderator, even though it is very unusual and requires a big plant to make it.

  2. He selected plutonium as the fissile material, even though it doesn't occur in nature and have to be created in nuclear piles.

The argument is that Heisenberg, being a highly intelligent man, would not have made those mistakes, and that he therefore intentionally made those choices to delay or stop Germany from getting the bomb.

However, this ignores that Heisenberg was a scientist, not an industrialist. I think Heisenberg simply chose the options he thought had the greatest chance of succeeding. He didn't think uranium was a good candidate for a chain reaction, and that it would be easier to make a bomb out of plutonium. He also thought it would be easier to create a nuclear pile if it was moderated by heavy water.

He was definitely correct about the heavy water. Making a heavy water reactor is easier than a graphite or ordinary water reactor, and in addition, a heavy water reactor can work with non-enriched uranium. This means that although you need facilities to create heavy water, you don't need facilities to enrich the uranium, to some extent compensating for the need of heavy water.

And it's hard to claim that he was wrong with regards to plutonium. He rather was "too correct". The Manhattan project decided to pursue both plutonium and uranium bombs, and during the development of those bombs they had to come up with a more complex bomb design for the plutonium bomb, because plutonium turned out to be so reactive that it would probably explode to early in the process, making it likely to "Fizzle" if it had been used with the original simpler design, while the simple design could be retained for the uranium bomb.

So I think he rather chose the options that was the easiest for him. The "safe bet", so to speak. He probably either underestimated the time and effort required in creating enough heavy water and then enough plutonium to build a bomb, or he didn't make his choices with regards to the time frame at all, but based them entirely on what he thought would be easiest, as opposed to what would be quickest.

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No, he did not.

He very much wanted Germany to win the war. For example he was very excited about the offensive in the Ardennes. He met with Niels Bohr in attempt to gain more information about his work, which was described by Bohr himself.

The source of this information is the Niels Bohr's biography by Daniel Danin.

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WH's account of the meeting is very different. He claimed to be trying hint to Bohr that the Germans had made very little progress - in the hope that the allies wouldn't use the weapon on them. Bohr, who wasn't familiar with the details of the bomb project at the time, misunderstood it to be WH saying that Germany would soon have a bomb. WH deeply admired Bohr and was very upset at the outcome of the meeting. (WH autobio quoted in Richard Rhodes book) –  none Oct 6 '13 at 17:25

J. Robert Oppenheimer's biographer Ray Monk thinks that Heisenberg played no such role (perhaps he "did" in convenient-to-some retrospect). See also here.

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The German weapons development effort (including nuclear weapons) was fragmented among numerous competing groups, each jealously guarding their resources and not sharing information with other groups. German Secret Weapons of the Second World War, by Ian V Hogg, discusses this in great detail. As for the Bomb specifically, the evidence is that Heisenberg was somewhere between ambivalent and mildly enthusiastic. He was a patriot (but not a Nazi), and had to be careful not to offend the Gestapo (even though he was a Nobel Laureate). He did make some technical mistakes and (in hindsight) incorrect choices, but he did not deliberately sabotage the effort, nor was he incompetent in any sense of the word. Like most German scientists, he did a very poor job of communicating with political leaders, military leadership, and even with others in his field. He was first and foremost a scientist, not a military man working against time to develop the weapon. The Germans tried to get the Bomb, and they failed -- let us celebrate that.

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Heisenberg's speech notes from the 1942 Harnack Haus conference were recovered from KGB archives by Rainer Karlsch and published in 2005. These reveal that Heisenberg actively promoted development of an atomic bomb to fellow scientists, military chiefs and political leaders at that conference.

Luftwaffe General Field Marshall Erhard Milch recalled in his memoirs that when he asked Heisenberg at the conference how big such a bomb would need to be, Heisenberg replied no bigger than a pineapple. Heisenberg called for establishment of three different research projects

  1. Uranium 235 Enrichment
  2. Nuclear reactors to obtain Plutonium ("eka-Osmium")
  3. Harvesting Protactinium 233

Heisenberg was personally involved with research to develop nuclear reactors but because of his expertise in Matrix theory of transmutation he was also employed as a consultant to Forschungsstelle-D at Bisingen. This was the connection between Heisenberg and Bohr. Before the war Bohr had been published for his experiments with transmutation of Protactinium from Thorium. Heisenberg was trying to acquire Bohr's knowledge for the German war effort.

Various OSS reports corroborated this based on intelligence smuggled to Switzerland from Reichstag official Dr Erwin Respondek during 1943.

On 22 April 1945 the US 1269th Engineers Battalion attached to ALSOS captured and dismantled an advanced 23 MeV syncrotron device at Bisingen. The ALSOS mission also captured a 1.8MeV Van der Graff generator at Tubingen not far away. These were involved with efforts by Otto Hahn to transmute Thorium which also involved use of the Paris cyclotron from 1941.

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The informant of this was Dr Ing. Ernst Nagelstein [informant H-98] who was interrogated 1st November 1944 in Switzerland by Goudsmitt and Wardenberg.

Thus to suggest Heisenberg was trying to prevent Nazi development of the Bomb is either misleading or at best ignorant of the truth.

Heisenberg was not a central figure in the Nazi atomic bomb project. That accolade belongs to prof Kurt Deibner who headed a rival and far more secret project for Army Ordnance (Heereswaffenamt) to develop an atomic bomb.

Postwar focus on Heisenberg misses the point entirely that Heisenberg himself was not key to the Geramn Atomic bomb project and in fact was quite peripheral and largely unaware of Diebner's achievements. Hesienberg was a vain, arrogant man who thought himself superior to other scientists and thus he perhaps saw himself at the centre of Germany's nuclear efforts, but this was light years from the truth.

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How did that different perspectives on Heisenberg occur ?

Robert Jungk published the (in my opinion excellent) book "Heller als tausend Sonnen" (Brighter than thousand suns) in 1956 about the fate of the atomic physicists working on the bomb. Jungk was strictly against the bomb and Heisenberg claimed in this book that he actively tried to prevent the building of the Bomb.

Now Niels Bohr had a talk with Heisenberg and after reading "Heller als tausend Sonnen" he said that Heisenberg had made the exact opposite impression: That Heisenberg supported the bomb and worked full-time on it to guarantee Germanys victory.

The Niels Bohr Archive in Kopenhagen has presented the letters of Niels Bohr under http://www.nba.nbi.dk/papers/docs/cover.html.

Heisenberg's letter can be found here (5,6,7): http://werner-heisenberg.unh.edu/

The question if Heisenberg did not made himself clear or if Bohr's interpretation is correct is unsolved. Fact is that the German physicists were not able to come up with a working design.

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The simple answer to your question is that Heisenberg was a political Chameleon. Heisenberg attempted to re-write history and exculpate his own role. The problem of reconciling conflicting accounts arises from the gullibility of those who want to cling to a prepared script explaining the Nazi nuclear project who are unwilling to use their brains. –  user2357 Jun 18 at 22:48

There were reviews of the documents recovered from Heisenberg's facility where, in his handwriting, equations he had derived, and which were used by the Manhattan Project, were very subtly wrong as well as testimony from other scientists in the project captured by allies and Soviets stating that Heisenberg ordered pointless experiments they could not ignore because he was the last first-rank physicist in Germany.

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And your source is what? –  Pieter Geerkens May 2 at 21:30
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Welcome to History.SE! To keep a high level of excellence here, could you point to some reliable sources that support this answer? Thanks! –  American Luke May 2 at 21:46

We know several things about him. First, Heisenberg was notoriously "incompetent," insofar as there were major gaps in his understanding of atomic physics. Second, he recognized this fact, and went to his old professor, Niels Bohr, to ask questions to clear up things that he was unsure of in his own mind. (This visit was the subject of a play.) Third, we know that Bohr did not answer Heisenberg's questions, and fourth, we know that Heisenberg did not resort to "extralegal" methods to find the answers (such as taking up the Gestapo on their offer to torture the answers out of Bohr.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Werner_Heisenberg

From what anyone can gather, Heisenberg was an ethical man. That did not preclude him from "rooting" for Germany, he was German after all, but on the other hand, he seemed to want Germany to win "fair and square," rather than "at all costs." The best guess is was that he would have preferred Germany to win, but was "reconciled" to its losing. In any event, he apparently tried to help Germany win the war, but only in a "moral" way, and not "outside the rules."

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What do you mean that he wanted to be ethical? The fact that he did not order to torture Bohr does not mean he was ethical. The reasons may be that he felt Bohr as a friend or guru, because torturing Bohr would make international resonance, because he was unsure that Bohr had the needed info, because he did not want gestapo to intervene and so on. Heisenberg definitely wanted a nuclear bomb, was it ethical or not. -1 –  Anixx Apr 26 '13 at 11:47
    
@Anixx - be careful - Tom Au did not say that he "wanted to be ethical"; you may have your own opinion on this but you're falsely putting words into Tom Au's mouth here. –  Darth Satan Apr 28 '13 at 19:08
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Heisenberg was notoriously incompetent ? It's like saying that "Columbus was a notoriously bad sailor"! He was one of the "founding fathers" of quantum mechanics, which encompass atomic physics. The major gaps you speak about are from the 1920s, and everyone had them at the time. His visit to Niels Bohr (another "founding father") helped clear the matter. By the time of the war, all this physics was clear, and Werner Heisenberg (along with others, including Bohr, Eintein, Ferni, etc.) . –  Frédéric Grosshans Jun 14 '13 at 14:47
    
I put the word "incompetent" in quotes because it was a "relative" (compared to Einstein, Fermi, and Bohr) level, not absolute. Heisenberg did win a Nobel Prize for quantum mechanics, after all, making him better than "most." But by your own answer on another question, German scientists (including Heisenberg) "did not thought about the concept of critical mass, and vastly overestimated the amount of enriched uranium needed to make a bomb." –  Tom Au Jun 14 '13 at 17:55
    
@Anixx If you're a moral or cultural relativist, being in an evil society and not using the evil options freely available to you, qualifies as ethical. Not exactly pro-active, but considering the cost of civil disobedience at the time... –  LateralFractal Oct 6 '13 at 0:54

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